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Benji B on the Telekom Electronic Beats Podcast

Read the transcript of our recently aired podcast with Benji B and listen along to the episode below.

Episode 66: Benji B

01:03:15

“Algorithms look at BPM and 'people who searched for also liked', whereas I’m searching for something like a feeling in music. ”

“Algorithms look at BPM and 'people who searched for also liked', whereas I’m searching for something like a feeling in music. ”

Jakob Thoene, Host:

Hello again, it’s me, Jakob Thoene, and welcome to the podcast. As you can hear we’re talking in English this episode, as I met one of London’s most wanted music selectors, DJs, and promoters–I am talking about Benji B. Besides his regular radio show on BBC Radio 1, he runs the event series label Deviation and was working as a musical director for several fashion brands like Celine or Louis Vuitton. Benji told me how he gained his knowledge in music and where his passion for dance culture comes from. We also talked about the relevance of radio stations nowadays and about his way to work with different creators of different disciplines, such as Kanye West or Virgil Abloh. Some people may think now: did you travel to London these weeks? During a lockdown? Of course not! We already recorded this episode back in September, when I was still able to visit Benji in London.

Also, he gave me a preview of his compilation, which was supposed to come out now, but unfortunately, he had to push the release to early 2021. Nevertheless, I am also very happy that we got our hands on this to give you a little sneak peek.

Thoene:

Hey Benji and welcome to the podcast.

Benji B:

How are you doing? Thank you very much.

Thoene:

I’m good. I am enjoying sunny London!

Benji B.

Welcome to London.

Thoene:

Thank you. Benji, you are a music producer, but you also produce radio shows. You are a very known international DJ. And you are also producing and curating music for fashion shows. What do all these things have in common for you? And how did they work side by side?

Benji B:

To me, they are all the same thing. They’re different expressions of the same thing. And that thing is music frequency. There are basically different attention points along that spectrum but they are connected by the same thing, the same force and the main thing that changes is how you approach them. But it is often a very similar course, skillset, and passion that are required for all of them, which is a deep love, understanding, and care about music, really. So, it’s funny I never really think of it in that way until you list all of those things, because often when you go 100 miles per hour and you’re just doing them and you don’t think about all these different areas, disciplines, whatever you wanna call it, but it’s true I do all of those things but to me, they’re all interconnected.

Thoene:

The deep love or the passion for music maybe also comes from your parents. I mean, your father had a great record collection and he was also very much into music. Do you remember your first memory of music or how did you get in touch with music?

Benji B:

Since zero, music’s been constantly on. I have been constantly surrounded by creative people and a musical world and as you correctly said, I was also lucky enough to grow up with an incredible record collection that was outside of the norm I‘d say. Both, my mom and dad were very very instrumental and encouraging me to find my own musical identity and explore it and I think that that’s probably something I am the most grateful for. I’ve often heard stories about people saying “I wanted to do music, but it wasn’t encouraged.” Well, in my case it was the opposite. Any musical interest that I showed, whether it was wanting to take up an instrument or do this, that, was always fully backed and fully encouraged and that’s the biggest gift you can give anyone.

Thoene:

Was there a key moment that you can remember when you started digging more records and were more into playing records instead of participating as a musician?

Benji B:

Yeah, I was a musician from age 6 until about 20 and I think that in my sort of mid-teens DJing took over a more immediate way to express myself because, in that time, it wasn’t like now, where all you need is a laptop. You kind of needed a studio back then, to make electronic music, to make beats, to make the kind of stuff I was into at the time.

Thoene:

You started playing the saxophone back then.

Benji B:

Yeah, I did play saxophone from age 7. And that’s a really good example of what you’re saying. Getting to a certain age where someone says, more specifically, my dad would say “What instrument do you wanna play?” I said saxophone and we went off to go and make that happen.

Thoene:

I think most of the people were told, “Play the piano, don’t play the drums, not the saxophone cause that’s noisy.”

Benji B:

Well, I wish I had played the piano to be honest because the piano and guitar are kind of like the keys to the musical universe. In terms of understanding harmony, in terms of understanding composition. The thing about performance instruments like any melody instrument like the sax, trumpet, you know, whatever is that those fundamentally come down to being very, very good at performing. Like, being very disciplined about doing your scales, being very disciplined about performing and obviously when you compose, I think you also have to be very very high level to take that to the next level, whereas if you learn the piano or guitar, you can use that as a tool to be a composer, you don’t necessarily have to be a virtuoso pianist.

Thoene:

You can’t play chords with a saxophone.

Benji B:

Nah, unfortunately, you can’t, no. But yeah, I did grow up playing music and then the bit where DJing took over was when I fell in love with records, really. I was always obsessed with records, I was always trying to mix records into the radio, mix records into a tape. Even before I knew what I was doing. I became very obsessed with buying records and vinyl culture and all the rest of it but really weirdly young, like ten. And then by the age of 14, I was fully gone into DJing, pirate radio, studying clubs before I was even old enough to go to clubs. I think that DJing and mixing together records and the culture of DJing was super creative at that time and still is of course, but was kind of unusual. It was not normal to become a DJ at that time. So I got into it heavy around 14, 15, 16 years old, I’d say.

Thoene:

I have read, that you entered the clubs at the age of 15. In the clubs, when you’re 15, everybody again older than you, maybe there is a similarity to what you told us earlier when you were surrounded by creatives, you get used to it as a child. When you entered the club, I heard or read, that you went there alone?

Benji B:

Oh, I went to clubs on my own all the time. Because when I was at school and I was that age there was no one really that was kind of on the same wave musically, really, or was able to do that. I went a lot alone, but in the knowledge that I was going to see people that I knew. Because at that time, it was like, you’d just buy a ticket for a headliner you weren’t interested in. I wasn’t interested in that, I was interested in residencies, so I’d go to weekly nights where you’d often see the same DJs, the same heads, and then, after a while, you get to know people and you become a sort of family. And so, there were a few club nights that were like that, where I had my own family, where I’d just go and my family would be there, you know what I mean? You didn’t feel weird turning up alone, it was like you knew who was gonna be there. That whole period was, yeah of course there’s a social element, there’s like saying hello to people. but it was really about music and music discovery. The clubs were my music discovery portal. It wasn’t really about anything other than that. I was just obsessed with music, and so, I was quite young and just had a super open mind, so I’d just soak up the music and go home. It was that simple.

Thoene:

Do you remember the first night, when you entered the club? Because I remember my first time at a club and it was so impressive that I am kind of stuck got stuck till today.

Benji B:

I don’t remember which one it was. I think the ones that I went to first weren’t the cool ones. Because the ones I remember were [places like] Hammersmith Palais once because you could get in easily, or it was an under 18’s night or something like that but that wasn’t cool. It was a little bit cheesy and then we went to a couple of cheesy nights at the Camden Palace, which is now called KOKO, but you know, that wasn’t. So I think the first nights that I went to were probably just like.

Thoene:

Keeping it a secret…

Benji B:

No, they probably had like Baby D performing or it was rave stuff probably. Which was cool, but they weren’t like serious night clubs. I went to the Dome, which was kind of easy to get into but no, the honest truth is that I can’t remember what the first one was.

Thoene:

But can you remember the first radio show you worked on?

Benji B:

Oh yeah, of course. The first radio show that I worked on was with Gilles Peterson at Kiss FM.

Thoene:

How did you meet each other?

Benji B:

I met him at one of those club nights, I met him at That’s How It Is, which was his club night at Bar Rumba on Shaftesbury Avenue on a Monday night. I used to go there every Monday.

Thoene:

So you were a resident somehow?

Benji B:

I was a resident on the dance floor, yeah. I met him there when I was 16 years old. I started working on his show at Kiss while I was still doing my A levels, which in the UK is between the ages of 16 and 18. That was my first experience in a radio studio and I have been in one every week for the rest of my life.

Thoene:

Why is radio still so important to you, or in general?

Benji B:

That one is a really big question. I think it is important to me because it’s a format that has meant so much to me for my whole life and therefore this point is kind of in my DNA, it’s in my routine, it’s in my understanding. Doing a two-hour radio show once a week of new music. There are obviously lots of interpretations of radio. If you go to America, radio means something different unless you’re talking about college stations or NPR or something like that. And certainly, when some people to think of the radio, they think about what you turn on at 3 PM when you get in your car. In this life that I’ve had I’m lucky enough to have been most influenced by specialist radio, which, when I was kid, was the internet. That was my internet, my SoundCloud, my Discogs, whatever.

There were two places to discover music–going to nightclubs and the radio. Those were two places where you were going to hear new music. Obviously, even when the internet arrived, which became more common around the late ’90s, it was still the source, because it’s the format that had the most influence on me. It was just like such a special thing to sit down for two hours and hear your favorite DJs. I was very lucky to grow up in a time when there were some amazing DJs around. It was like a religion for me, like how some people have weekly appointments with their favorite TV show. My thing was like “Oh it is 7 PM on a Wednesday, I’ve got to listen to Jumping Jack Frost on Kiss FM, or Fabio Grooverider, or Gilles.

Thoene:

So you had fixed appointments?

Benji B:

I had fixed appointments with these people and this was before you could listen on-demand and listen again, so I’d tape them and listen to it throughout the week. It was like an art form that I studied really and it’s still relevant to me today because there’s no algorithm, no experience that can put together music in that way for hours and present it and explain what it is and draw this kind of sketchbook over two hours of presenting new music and being a filter for new music. I think in a way, the answer to your second question, “Why is it still relevant?”, is because filters are more important than ever now. In a world where we have just an abundance of amazing choice, you know, filters are kind of even more relevant than ever and the personal touch. Of course, an algorithm can say that because you like this one song by Carl Craig you might well like this song by Moritz von Oswald or whatever, like, sure, that’s getting more and more sophisticated all the time. But in terms of a DJ mix, putting together, I mean I’m sure that will be replaced by algorithms in about 20 years.

Thoene:

You think so?

Benji B:

Well, I mean at the end of the day if Spotify can correctly guess your music taste as a playlist, you know and you’ve got people using auto-sync and mixing to get there. Point is, radio is the one thing that’s exempt from that because it’s about personality and it’s about personal taste, it’s about the personal touch. And it’s also about the connection with people. You know I remember sometimes listening to great broadcasters is like John Peel or you know people of that kind of stature who I would probably put like David Attenborough or people like that, you know, in that category who make you feel like they’re just broadcasting to you. Even if you’re driving on the motorway it makes you feel like the radio show is just for you.

Thoene:

Like they’re sitting in your ear and showing you new music.

Benji B:

It’s always been my portal, it’s been my vehicle, it’s been the way that I express myself, and that comes around really fast once a week, you know when you have to come up with two hours of new music. I think that the reason it’s relevant to me is because it’s sharpens the diamond for me. I can’t ever become one of those guys that are like “Ah yeah, I’ll go record shopping in a couple of months and see what’s out there. It’s like I have to do that search every single week.

Thoene:

So you have the approach that you are showing new music every week?

Benji B:

Oh man, absolutely. Like, but probably to a point where it’s like 95% new music. Like I repeat myself very rarely, so the flow is constant. I think it’s probably one of the highest turnovers of new music of any weekly radio show. It must be, because, you know, we spend at least two days a week on it, at least.

Thoene:

That’s a lot for two hours.

Benji B:

That’s how long it takes, it’s two days for two hours really. Because you’re searching all the promos, you’re listening to all your promos, then you’re searching what’s in the record shops, then you’re searching what’s on the sort of sites, blogs, whatever you wanna call it, and then obviously what you have physically in your record collection. I mean it’s like, it’s a lot that goes into making a selection, so yeah. I told you, it’s a big question. But it’s still an art form that I care about. I can understand why some people are like “radio, that’s a bit out of date now.” I can understand why they would say that. But for me, it’s not.

Thoene:

I really get the personal touch thing. I think you said that the radio show is also a mixtape.

Benji B:

That’s how I approach it every week. If I was to do a randomized mix show, where I was basically going, “Ah okay, there are 25 songs that I like, put them in a playlist,” that would take me half as long. It’s just about presenting it in a way that means something. My job has always been to link people’s taste because not everyone that loves house music likes hip hop and not everyone that likes hip hop loves pop, but it’s about taking people there in a way that makes sense.

Thoene:

Also getting people to stay on the show to maybe show some new aspects of music.
Like somebody who is more into grime or hip hop, you catch him with two songs and then you sneak in a dance track and they’re like “Okay wow, I wouldn’t play on Spotify or the Spotify algorithm wouldn’t surprise me. But now I got this ‘Wow moment.'”

Benji B:

Exactly, because algorithms look at BPM and “people who searched for also liked”, whereas I’m searching for something like a feeling in music. Like a certain soul in records that mean something to me. But radio is also about the now. Of course, like anyone, I enjoy digging in my own stuff but my show is really about reflecting the now. Reflecting on what I have been doing also on the weekend when we used to be able to go to clubs. So it’s finding that balance between ‘listening music’ and ‘club music’ because obviously, I’m not gonna play ambient music in the club, but why would I have a radio show where I can’t express music to listen to as well as music to dance to?

Thoene:

So you can show more your broader taste instead of in a club we’re also the function plays a big role?

Benji B:

I mean I can really understand why people get confused as to what I do musically sometimes in terms of the new audience but the people who know me never seem to have any confusion, they know that when they go out, they’re going to hear me playing dance music. Very varied, but dance floor tempo music, or whatever. And on the radio, they hear the breadth of my taste, the diversity that I have but I think that new promoters in dance music sometimes might listen to my show and go, “Oh, I don’t understand what he does. Why are we gonna book this guy, he’s playing hip hop and jazz, or something.” And I understand that confusion but traditionally, that’s always been my balance.

Thoene:

You also started a party series in 2007 called Deviation and I’ve also read that you wanted to create a party where the DJs can play what they want to play and not to serve a certain expectation. It was on Wednesdays in London and also in the space where you wanted to be the only event that the people have to really go there and on purpose, they don’t fall into the door and say, OK, let’s see what’s happening here. Why did you choose that approach?

Benji B:

Because I found that way separates the people that are there by accident to the people that really want to be there. With clubs I’d much rather have 50 people that are passionate about being there for the right reasons than 500 that don’t know where they are, you know? And so for me, it goes back to your first question. It was all about what I grew up with, which was going out on a Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Like, it sounds crazy now because, it happens less, but that was really the professional nights to go out, Saturday was difficult. Because of lots of tourists, lots of people from outside. Weekday nights were always the music heads and so at that time, that’s what I wanted to do. It was about sampling the best bits of the clubs that I grew up with as well whether it be a sound system, whether it be what you just mentioned. But yeah, it was for that reason really, is that I felt like starting it on a Wednesday, at a kind of unusual destination, meant that it would have to grow organically, even if that meant having it half full, a quarter full, on the first one. I’d much rather play that long game of it building in a real way, than to have it packed with a headliner on night number one because there’s no longevity in that. I wanted it to have its own community of its own regulars and that’s what every great residency should be.

Thoene:

I mean when you look back or when you go through the lineups, then I’d say from today’s perspective, they were plenty of headliners playing that show, but a very early stage, like, how did you manage to find the right acts or the ones that really maybe also were innovative that time. How did you find them, back then? Flying Lotus, Floating Points, at the very early stage. James Blake [was hanging] around, I read.

Benji B:

The same way I do now. I mean those people are part of the DNA of what Deviation is and they’re part of the DNA of my radio show. We’re all part of each other’s development. It’s a symbiotic sort of thing. We, Flying Lotus, seeing as an example, is the first name you mention was sending me CDRs, beat demos, before Warp, before records were released. To me it’s not about what’s going to be hot, it’s just a direct love relationship with music. And if it’s something that I believe in then I’ll play it heavily and at that time, you know, that was what was going on with Sam, you know, Floating Points. He approached me at the club actually and gave me a CDR. I remember it said ‘Myspace.com/floating-point‘, in like handwriting and I was like, “Oh, right and that just was in my pile of listening and I listened to it and it had love me like this on it. And I was like, “What the hell is this and it was only a minute long and I used to load it up on the CDJ and play it at the night and there’s a lot of records that have their own story at the night. And yes, the fact that there were a lot of musicians and DJs coming down when they weren’t playing is the biggest compliment you can get. It was a heads night, you know, and you’d look out and there’d be DJs, musicians, rappers, producers whatever.

Thoene:

Like a DJ’s night out.

Benji B:

Kind of yeah, but in a really organic, natural way. It’s not something you can never cook up on purpose that kind of thing. It just has to happen naturally, but in terms of answering your question, I was just booking the people I was playing on the radio, you know, I wasn’t booking people going “Oh, wow. This person is going to be big.” And a lot of them were successful already, it’s just that in our grassroots music community there’s always been sort of a network of understanding that and it’s the same now. If Kode9 phones me up now, says “Can you play at my night?” I’m not saying “Yeah, but how much have you got,” if Kenny Dope finds me and asked me to play or anyone that I respect in music, I could give you any number of names that have had that longevity of relationship with me, it’s not the same thing as when a promoter calls you up and says “Do you want to play in such-and-such town on New Year’s Eve or whatever,” it’s just a different thing. That’s the roots of scenes of music, genres. That’s basically how it’s always worked. I mean when I used to get booked at Plastic People, I’d cancel other things in order to do it. You know what I mean? It’s like that the sort of grassroots thing of doing what’s at the core of what you’re about is more important to me than anything else. So, of course, as DJs, we go and get paid by doing other things. But really it’s those nights that are the genesis of all best moments and there’s a kind of interconnected relationship amongst artists. So, even the ones that you perceive as big at the time or not or whatever, it was about really my relationship with those people and the ability to book them. It wasn’t like I was forcing them or pressuring them to do it.

Thoene:
It sounds it was like the time when you were 14, 15, and entering the club scene and had the feeling like you were entering a family.

Benji B:

Yeah. Well, the music scene when it’s at its best is a family of people and there’s a mutual respect that I have with producers and DJs across so many scenes and generations. I’m very lucky, you know, and that’s because for those of us that make this our life, we can smell out pretty fast when it’s people that when there’s a Hoover. When people want to just come in and Hoover up or have the liberty of saying, selling off culture to the highest bidder or you know, that kind of thing. I think music is a language that binds a lot of us and then also so is culture, you know the culture of the hours, minutes, days, years, months, that you put into our culture, which is club culture and music culture. There’s no fast forward for that. That’s not the same thing as saying “Oh you have to have been doing it for years to be in it.” That’s not at all what I’m saying. You can feel that energy from an 18-year-old. You can feel it from a forty-year-old. You can feel it’s just an energy thing. It basically comes down to
authenticity and craft and that the sort of industrialization of the DJ and club world has threatened that at times because people think, “Okay and now I have to do this thing and this scene and this set on there and then boom, boom, boom, and then my career is set,” but in actual fact, you know, building up that kind of grassroots relationship with other DJs, even if it’s a new scene you’re creating yourself. Yeah, you know what I mean, and playing for each other and different things. As you can tell I’m even having trouble explaining it. I mean, it’s something that you kind of feel.

Thoene:

Yeah, I get it. I mean you can also already see this or when you when you’re telling that the DJ’s just stopped by because they were into the the acts you are booking, because they were into the music. Yeah, and you share the passion for the artists for example, and then you also have like the passion to share, that connects maybe more than the business opportunities you can get because you’re I mean we are, the artists are all visionary. I would say so.

Benji B:

They are visionary and so yeah.

Thoene:

It’s so you go after a certain vision. And most of the time you match with other visions, you influence each other and I think that’s also a big part in being part of the community.

Benji B:

Yeah, a hundred percent. I mean a big part of Deviation was about introducing people to music and we were, you know way ahead of our time. To me, it was normal to put, Moodyman with Hudson Mohawke or Kenny Dope with Flying Lotus or David, but that wasn’t being done at all, at the time music was much set more separated at that time.

Thoene:

So you get the house on the on the one side, more be driven on the other side, IDM.

Benji B:

Yeah, exactly. And we were celebrating the kind of very fresh music that was happening at the time in a way. It was a physical manifestation of what I was doing on the radio was like a physical experience of the radio show in a way. In terms of the artist that I was playing. But it was also about introducing people. Like I remember the biggest compliment to any night is when people go because of the night and not because of the headliner. Of course that helps if there’s an artist that they love and they’re excited to see, but the faces that we used to look out on didn’t change. You know, it was like there were regulars and then there were newcomers and it was like “London’s Best Kept” or “Worst Kept Secret”, but it was a trust and that’s the biggest compliment you pay anyone because that trust is the trust that I had for the club nights I went to. So if I went to club night and they put on a certain DJ, you know, I knew that that DJ or that artists would be of interest to me, because they were putting them on, you know, and I remember we had so many moments like that. I remember when Dorian Concept came for the first time, and Dorian Concept is an artist from Vienna and he was over from Austria and he turned up and we had our regulars and our regulars were quite kind of hardcore music heads, you know, dancers as well, like proper, like serious dance floor kind of pressure. It was quite a high-pressure place to play. You had to bring your A-game. I remember Dorian Concept stepped in and he had like at the time he, first of all, he looked like a kid. He looked like a child because he looks like this innocent child.

Thoene:

But he’s a genius, I must say.

Benji B:
Yeah and he had this like bowl haircut, you know like those click on haircuts like the old Beatles hair cuts, like this kind of, like, real bowl haircut and he had like a busted cardboard box with a Korg synth in it and he just sort of took it out and it had a key missing and he put it on top of the box and I could remember the crowd looking at me and Jude kind of looking like, “who’s this guy?” If ever there’s proof of “Never judge a book by its cover,” you know, because like, he just destroyed everyone, you know, everyone went crazy and I remember moments like that being really special. So that’s a good example of at the time people didn’t know. Believe it or not, when Hudson Mohawke played at the club for the first time I’d say maybe 25 people there knew who he was and same thing when FlyLo played the first time, maybe half the club [knew him], you know what I mean? So it’s like it is about introducing things that you believe in as well and standing behind them and not always relying on, “book an empty room, book a headliner, how we going to fill it? Let’s make sure we put the most famous person possible.”

Thoene:

But I think that’s the aim for every promoter who’s really into music and really into creating creative events that your name is getting people along because they knew or they know that when they go there they will experience nice music and they will listen to great artists. Doesn’t matter who’s going to play but they just go there for for the music to enjoy. I think that’s the main goal, I mean, when I promoted back in the days when I was doing events, that was my main goal because I didn’t book any headliner, but it didn’t work out apparently, but yeah, I mean, I wish it would have worked out to be honest. But now I’m getting a little bit forward to the nowadays situation. I mean, there’s no event going on right now because of Coronavirus but you put together a compilation. How difficult was it for you to limit yourself to a certain amount of tracks instead of having, for example, a two hours radio show being released?

Benji B:

I mean to your point, the club, this compilation is about the era that you’re talking about. It was about I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time and that’s why it’s taken a long time is because every club night, you know every club night that’s a residency, has its own classics and those classic some of them might be big tunes outside the club and some of them really might not be they might be obscure B-sides or 12-inches that just happened to be successful with your crowd and then you play on once a month and then they become kind of like a residency staple tune. And that’s what this compilation is about. It’s about those records.

Thoene:

So, someone who was at the parties will recognize it, and then they will have very strong emotions towards it.

Benji B:

A hundred percent. Yeah in different ways for different records. It’s like often the records are dictated by the people that were there, so when I’d play like certain records depending on the reaction or if it really worked for some reason or if I really believed in a song I’d keep playing it, you know, month in, month out in my sort of warm-up sets or my opening sets which were kind of the hardest but also the most enjoyable and most rewarding sets to play was the set where you’re playing from kind of like 9 PM. When no one’s in there all the way through to when the guest plays at midnight or whatever or 11, whatever it might have been in those set some classics were born I’d play at the end of the night as well. And those classics are the ones that I wanted to put on this box set. You will be the first person to see this because I just got the finished vinyl.

Thoene:

Oh really?

Benji B:

So yeah, if you want to have a look at it. Yeah. This is a world exclusive.

Thoene:

Oh, wow.

Benji B:

Um, I literally just received this way. We had it made.

Thoene:

It’s a box it’s about maybe now I, I need to describe a little bit.

Benji B:

Yeah. It’s like, uh, I wanted to have it done as a, as a full vinyl box.

Thoene:

So it’s really about, it’s a collection.

Benji B:

Yes. A collection. Yeah.

Thoene:

Oh, wow. And do you, when you open the box. Uh, you see, uh, pictures of the parties I assume. Yeah, really great. So you can also, when you, when you not attend the parties, you can get a vision of, uh, what was going on there.

Benji B:

That’s a list of everyone that played that we could find.

Thoene:

As I said, it’s, it’s crazy when you, nowadays, see a lot of people who are very like on a higher level, not only headliners but very much like with big releases. Interesting releases, a nice development.

Benji B:

Yeah. So we did a four, a four-box for vinyl box set, um, because. Yeah, I just wanted to make a box set as well. That was really about clubbing.

This compilation is really about club music. It’s not, you know, I’ve done compilations in the past that I like to work on in your car or Sundays. And of course, you can do that with this as well, but this is really a celebration of music that was big at the club. And the thing about it is that also, what I wanted to make was a box set that reminded me of having some of the most useful compilations when I was a teenager, because when I was a teenager and, or getting into, or maybe let’s just say a young DJ and that didn’t have much money and whatever.

Thoene:

So you buy compilations where you have a lot of tracks you would play.

Benji B:

Yeah. But you’d buy, but there was, but they weren’t. All DJs would steer away from those compilations that had loads of tracks. On one side, there were some DJ compilations, like classic master cuts ones or whatever that would be cut like 12-inches. So you’d have a maximum of two tracks on each side. So they’d be cut really loud sometimes at 45. And they’d be basically like buying the 12-inch, but you’d get loads in a box set and sometimes you’d take out one and you’d go and DJ with it. And what I wanted to do was create something like that. That was a time capsule of the classics from that era. And really they’re just songs that I chose. So they’re songs that as a DJ, in a way, they’re my classics. And so in a way, this is kind of full-stop for me. It’s like an end of an era I can kind of now give this, give this sort of time capsule box away, you know, as, as years have kind of tried and tested songs because it had to be big tunes for us, but some of them are really, really impossible to find on vinyl.

Like for example, Alice Smith’s “Love Endeavor (Maurice Fulton Mix)”, which is the first tune. It had to be the first cut because I think most people that come to the club would associate that song more than many others with being a Deviation anthem. And all of these are anthems in their own way. For example, the second track is kind of random, it’s just a 12-inch, Gilb’r Solo Flight’s remix of Rick Wilhite’s Ruby Nights from this Detroit beat down compilation I used to play. But we felt like it got played enough for it to make it onto the compilation. Then you’ve got big tunes, like The Detroit Experiment, think twice. And then. To “Tarantula” by Zomby, then you’ve got Carl Craig’s “Sandstorms (C2 2011 Version)”, which is obviously a massive tune, Lil Silva, who is kind of like an unofficial resident.
And then as you were saying, you referenced some of the beat era stuff. We’ve got that represented because in 2007, that was definitely a very strong movement that we were representing as well. It wasn’t maybe music that we play at peak time on the dance floor, but we definitely represent it. At some point in the night, like Hudson Mohawke, Flying Lotus, 00Genesis, Dorian Concept, as I just mentioned.
And then, of course, there was the whole DMZ, you know, Mala, Joy Orbison’s “Hyph Mngo”, Mala’s “Lean Forward”, lots of classic, massive tunes and then Pearson Sound and the Hessle Audio guys, and, you know, people that have played a part in the, in the lifespan of the club. And so, you know, for me, I’m very proud of the music that’s on here. There’s no major label music. There’s no big, you know, massive hits or whatever. These are just our hits. Yeah. So yeah.
Thoene:
It’s Deviation Classics.
Benji B:
Yeah. I’m really happy with it and I’m excited for it to come out and it.
Thoene:
I can tell you’re smiling while talking about it.
Benji B:
It has let me feel nostalgic because it is quite a while ago now, 2007. And that period, 2007 for the first five years, is probably the main part of this box set. And now when I look back on it, it was a very influential time in music and club culture.
Thoene:
Definitely. Um, now we are looking at the product at a record.
We were also talking about your work as a radio host, but we didn’t talk yet about fashion. Let’s get more into, into that direction. As you were creating concepts like curation, uh, you were producing also music for runway shows. How, or is there a difference between making a record or create a creation of a record?
Of course. I mean, Deviation Classics is a special one as, uh, you connect a lot of emotions, a lot of experiences with it, what’s the difference between making a music or curating music for a runway show, and making radio?
Benji B:
So, well, the way you approach music is just about context. So it is always different. The context makes things like wildly different, mostly in terms of length, how things feel and sound changes on the environment and where it’s being played. Like if you play, you know, An eight-minute house record in a club in the right club, in the right setting might not feel like eight minutes at all.
It might feel like just a house record. You know, if you play an hour, eight minutes house record a fashion show that where the length of the show is only 12 minutes. It’s going to feel like the longest eight minutes of your life. You know what I mean? It’s going to go on forever and ever, and ever, and it’s going to feel like it’s it, you know?
Context is everything right? Just like we were saying, if you play some kind of experimental glitchy, underwater, ambient track on the radio at 1 AM or something, it might sound like the best thing you’ve ever heard in your life.
Thoene:
Soundtrack of the night drive?
Benji B:
Yeah, exactly. Night drive on the motorway or something.
If you play that at 1 AM at peak time in a nightclub, people would be like, “What are you doing?” context. It sounds like an obvious thing to say. But the reason I’m saying it is because turn that obvious statement up to 11, and that’s what defines the difference between the different things you’re talking about and fashion shows and runway shows are all about context, all about the environment, all about pace, all about dynamics, um, and the length and style and everything. All of these minute factors lead into making the perfect runway soundtrack. And it’s not something that there’s a rule book for. You know, the first time I ever did it, I just had to do what mind’s reputation of that was.
It’s like other people that do the same job will have a different answer for you. But for me, it was just like, that’s my understanding of it. I didn’t have any training in it or anything. I just had to use this. But everything that you’re talking about is basically DJing, even producing is DJing sometimes.
Thoene:
Like curating of sounds and mixing together sounds that they work well.
Benji B:
A hundred percent, DJing is knowing when to play the right thing at the right time and for how long and why. And what to mix it in with and not what not to mix in with and why you can play a record and why you can’t. And if a record’s already rinsed out, or if it’s not, or can you revisit this one or is this the right time to revive this record is like, there are hundreds of small references and things that go into the understanding of placement of music when you’re a DJ. And also then let’s not forget understanding what club you’re at. Like the room you’re at the size that you’re at the crowd that you’re at, you know, playing at like, Club X, is that very different from playing Club Y while also respecting their resident DJ and what, there’s so many different things to consider as a DJ that are almost second nature after you’ve been doing it for a while. The same is true on the radio. And the same is true with applying that skill set to fashion. And if you listen to a lot of the best records that are guided by DJs, they understand.
Like some of the best records have the best middle eight, or they cut out the cheesy bit or they know how to take out this 16 bar section, or what’s going to work best in this context because DJs understand that stuff, you know? And so, the runway is the same context. It’s kind of like DJing but in a much more nuanced way. It’s like understanding how to fit an expression into nine minutes or 12 minutes or whatever the length of the show is.

Thoene:

I thought that might be a difference because you also have the visual aspects. Of course, all the clubs, as you said that you also have the room and certain aspects that have influence in your performance, but for the fashion show, for example, there’s a concept. Like, it’s not organically somehow. Cause it’s like, you’re working with also visionary artists, like a Virgil Abloh, for example, who has a vision for his fashion and how this could be presented and you need to somehow adapt or adjust. Maybe you can tell us a little bit more about the process, when you work on that.

Benji B:

Oh, absolutely. Yeah. The visual side is everything. Your job when you’re doing music is to support the visual element, to complement the visual element, to enhance it, to bring it out. The only thing I can really compare it to is music for film. Scoring films or scoring short films, long films, whatever. It’s like a similar thing, you’re supporting the visual element and adding an emotion to it as well. You know, as we all know from watching movies. If you heard like a horror soundtrack on top of a romantic scene, it would be funny or scary, or it would change how you feel. Whereas, you know, like one held note in a song can change what you think is about to happen. If I show you a film of a door, from the inside and it’s silent, then you think it’s a door then suddenly you put in some nice music or whatever you think, are you going to open it out to sunrise or whatever. And then suddenly you put in like a discordant, minor chord and he thinks someone’s going to break through the door with an axe or something. You know, it’s like, music is very powerful with visual and the same is true with runway shows. But I think the thing with one of my shows is that it’s a live experience. Of course, it’s now streamed around the world. So it’s a visual experience as well, but it’s like, you’re talking about reflecting whatever the core of the collection is that season, whatever the theme is, the environment, the set, the room, um, capturing the kind of musical mood that you and the creative director and the team are in that time. Um, and then trying to like tell a story in this very short amount of time, you know, as I said, time becomes compressed. Because like nine to 12 minutes can feel quite long if it’s wrong, you know what I mean? But it’s right. Then it flows. Sometimes one really interesting kind of like statement piece could be having the same thing going for that long. If you get it right. For me, it’s a very hard thing to put into words because when I start to talk with a Creative Director, I start to talk through ideas. Music just starts to appear in my head, ideas start to form. And then as soon as I’ve decided on, well, in the case of what I’m doing at Louis Vuitton, it’s slightly different because we work with live music every single time. And in the other shows that I’ve done, it’s more like me putting a soundtrack together, but in both cases, It’s the same. It’s like the music starts to form in my head, the curation, the musical direction, the producing of what’s going to happen. It kind of just starts to the records, start to pick themselves, you know?

Thoene:

Well, we were talking before the recording, we were also talking about speaking or talking about music and you described the runway shows also with feelings with emotions.

And I was wondering if it’s easy to come along with somebody who’s more into visionary aspects in terms of description of the feelings, or is it easy to match? For example, I mean, Virgil for example is very, also very much into music. But, um, is it easy to match on the same level of language when talking about certain emotions and also having like same opinion about the music?

Benji B:

With him? Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, we speak the same language.

Thoene:

So, it’s easy to work with him.

Benji B:

Oh man, it is like a blessing, because when you work with someone that is fluent in the language of music and also has amazing taste in music and is as passionate about music and the culture of music and the lineage of music and everything that surrounds that, as anyone else that, it just flows. It’s always flowed. It’s a blessing to be able to do it.

Thoene:

Was there a situation or a project where you were working with people, where you were sitting there and trying to get what they were saying, but they were basically saying like, I need upbeat?

Benji B:

Always, yeah. I sit in that situation a lot. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, of course. I mean, not everyone can explain, but anyone putting even, you know, people that work in music, putting it into words. It’s a very nuanced set of kind of reference points and contexts and ideas. So it’s sometimes difficult, but I find that when you work with artists in whatever field, whether it be visual arts or clothes.

Thoene:

When you also work with music artists, as you were also working with Kanye, and I think you’re producing a lot or working together with artists. And I think, that, it’s crucial to have an understanding or the same speaking, the same language. And, when you were thinking about feelings, emotions, and share the same reference.

Can be boring at some point, but I mean, it’s a good start then.

Benji B:

But yeah, you always have shared references, but everyone’s a unique thumbprint. Like no one has the exact same references so we can all learn from each other. It’s like, um, I find just as much value in talking to a 16, 17, 18-year-old about their musical thumbprint as I do a 60-year-old, as I do a 35-year-old, everyone’s unique. And we can all learn from each other’s unique standpoint. When I meet someone that lived through like the heyday of punk or whatever, I’m really interested to talk to them, because even though it’s not my music, like culturally, it’s just amazing for me.

When I meet someone that grew up going to the Hacienda and like the original summer of love in Ibiza, I’m like, okay, tell me everything. And the same thing is true  in London, I’m like, “tell me”.

The same is true when I speak to someone that was there in the Bronx in the late seventies, I want to just sit down with them like a sponge, same thing when I meet someone that was like, “Yeah, I went to Danceteria and the Mudd Club and, you know, Paradise Garage and all of these places that are like folkloric level, you know, to me, those places are more interesting than going into the prehistoric world or any other period of time, like those kinds of titans of clubs are more exciting to me than any other period in history. So, it’s the same, we’re all the same. We all have that kind of fascination.

Thoene:

Yeah I mean, that’s what I really like about my role in this podcast, because I get a chance to speak to a lot of people telling me about their background and about their story and in club culture. For example, I had the chance to talk to Honey Dijon some months ago and it was like, for me, it was really great. Because of course, I can read, I can watch videos about the time of New York and Chicago house, but I mean, talking to Honey and then getting all the stories and all the emotions, she can really tell me about how she felt, how it was for her to go out and to experience that time.

It’s a totally, totally different angle to really get these stories, these personal stories.

Benji B:

Well, that’s why I’m lucky, to do what I do with the radio, because I did a two-hour show with Frankie Knuckles talking, or even just talking to Theo Parrish for two hours about Ron Hardy and his experience of going to hear Ron Hardy every week, or, you know, the list goes on, like talking to Mike Banks, about, you know, it, all of that music is probably the most influential thing in my life. And so therefore I have a kind of a level of respect for it that is hard to put into words. Like no matter what happens in my life and where I end up, you know, in what career or whatever I’m doing, I will always look at that with the utmost respect in terms of being the kind of pillars and the foundation for what I’m into.

And I’m blessed to work with people that also aren’t stuck. You know what I mean? Like most of the people that I surround myself with and work with are not stuck in ideas of the past. They respect the foundations, but are just as excited about what’s happening in Chicago now, you know what I mean? Or what’s happening in South London now, those things are art. They have as much cultural significance, like living in the present is so important in music and culture. Especially because I find that when I read mainstream journalism about music, people only recognize music after it’s happened. You know, like I grew up with jungle. In London, you know, it was pretty massive. It was massive on the street. It was massive at school, massive on pirate radios, but, while mainstream dance press was really snobby about it, they were not, you know, people want to rewrite history the whole time. Same thing with dubstep, the same thing with grime, it’s the same thing with UK funky. I’m sure there’s an equivalence of this all over the world. And so, people will love to kind of like look back and go, “Oh yeah, of course, you know, dah, dah, dah, dah,” but actually, nah. That people were not really there for it at the time. Like we were living it. And so for that reason, it’s really important to be the own documenters of your own world.

Thoene:

So, when I asked you about your background or the music, you feel the surrounding you’re in, then you can tell me, cause I mean, or maybe when we meet in 10 years, you can tell me even more about your current.

Like what, what were you listening? The last 10 years, et cetera.

Benji B:

That’s why I’m so lucky to have the radio, man. This compilation feels like a relevant moment to do a time capsule, but it’s not necessarily a looking back moment. It is a retrospective moment, but it’s like a celebration, a kind of full stop of an era. Because we never did it and we wanted to do it for ages and you know what’s more important than anything? Is that all of these tunes really stood the test of time.

Thoene:

That’s crazy.

Benji B:

And when you look back on it, it was actually quite a pioneering time in music. If you look even like at Martyn, Mala, Pearson Sound, Joy Orbison, you know, et cetera. These people kind of changed music a bit, you know what I mean? Or contributed to it at least. So. But yeah, that’s why I have the radio, man is to always be able to reflect what’s going on right now and to kind of celebrate the now as well as respecting the past.

Thoene:

What gives you the greatest pleasure? But I can imagine it’s, what you were saying, like having the opportunity to also focus on the radio show and getting excited every time.

Benji B:

Yeah. I mean, the day that I don’t have that moment, where a tune makes me sit up in my chair and like get really excited or, buzzing about music is the day that I’ll hang up my headphones, you know, but I’m lucky that I still have that. And every night as you can probably hear. I’m sorry. I apologize for being a bit blocked up. I’m like, put your run down. I’ve got a cold. I don’t think it’s Coronavirus, don’t worry. But, um, but I’ve, you know, we’ve just come out of a run of doing two pretty big, uh, shows and a couple of other things and multitasking basically where I’m no stranger to kind of like losing myself in the music and doing all-nighters and stuff. So, I’m a bit run down at the moment, but my spirits are still super high because I’m continuing to be inspired by music. So even when I’m run down and burnt out like this, the thing that keeps me going is music and creativity across the whole spectrum.

But I think the thing that makes me happiest is when I hear music that has that special ingredient, that DNA. And people will come up to me in the street when I travel or when I used to travel, and go, or this is a Deviation record, this sounds like it’s Deviation. You know? So, we’ve obviously created some kind of identity with it.

And that’s the biggest compliment I could have because records that have that Deviation DNA is still the things that make me excited. And I love the fact that I can’t put it into words. What makes that, you know what I mean? It’s just something that I can hear.

Thoene:

Yeah, that’s a good way to end the conversation.

I would love to speak to you for more hours. Maybe we get a chance soon. Thanks, Benji for, yeah, for giving us your time.

Benji B:
Oh, thank you for having me I’m so I’m a bit under the weather, but you know, it’s all good. I hope that we can get back to being in clubs one day soon. That’d be cool. Wouldn’t it?

Thoene:

And then we’ll have a meetup, uh, in front of the DJ booth.

Benji B:

Yes. It’s been a long time.

Thoene:

Thank you.

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Published November 26, 2020.